With a libretto by Royce Vavrek, Missy Mazzoli’s enthralling multimedia opera conjures the rebel hero/heroine Isabelle Eberhardt, the extraordinary writer who left her home in Europe to explore Northern Africa.
Mazzoli’s electric score layers acoustic and electronic sound with live and pre-recorded voices to create a spellbinding beautiful indie-rock opera. Mazzoli/Vavrek’s recent world premiere BREAKING THE WAVES is being hailed as “among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet” (Opera News).
Chicago Fringe Opera’s production is led by Catherine O’Shaughnessy (conductor), Amy Hutchison (stage director) and Kia Smith (choreographer). Mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson stars as Isabelle Eberhardt, in her exciting Chicago debut.
By Missi Mazzoli
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
The texts for “Song from the Uproar” were inspired by the journals of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) an explorer, nomad, journalist, novelist, passionate romantic, Sufi, and one of the most unique and unusual women of her era. At age twenty, after the death of her mother, brother and father, she left her life in Switzerland for a nomadic and unfettered existence in the deserts of North Africa. She traveled extensively through the desert on horseback, often dressed as a man, relentlessly documenting her travels through detailed journals. At age twenty-seven Isabelle drowned in a flash flood in the desert.
“Song from the Uproar” immerses the audience in the surreal landscapes of Isabelle’s like; she describes the death of her family, the thrill of her arrival in Africa, her tentative joy at falling in love, the elation of self-discovery and the mystery of death.
In 2004, within hours of picking up a copy of her journals in a Boston bookstore, I officially became obsessed with Isabelle Eberhardt’s strange and moving life story. Within two weeks I had read everything she had ever written and nearly everything written about her, but despite my compulsive reading habits, I still had more questions than answers.
I was struck by the universal themes of her story – how much her struggles, her questions, her passions, mirrored those of women throughout the 20th and 21st century. Isabelle made a great effort to define herself as an independent woman under extreme circumstances. She dressed as a man, seeing this as the only way to move freely and live the life of her choice. She let herself fall deeply in love but struggled to maintain her independent lifestyle.
I knew immediately that I wanted to create a large-scale work about Isabelle, and I knew that I wanted it to be more of a personal response to her life than a detailed retelling of her story. I needed to start answering my own questions, imagining how she felt, filling in the spaces between journal entries and exploring the universality that make her story so vibrant and relevant to me over one hundred years after her death.
— Missy Mazzoli
Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have created an enthralling opera conjuring the maverick spirit of Isabelle Eberhardt, the extraordinary 19th century European woman writer who converted to Islam and moved to Algeria to explore North Africa, dressed as an Arab man; writing and living with complete disregard for societal conventions. Isabelle bravely and brazenly catapulted herself into a life of sensual adventure and spiritual contemplation in a quest for true freedom of mind, body and spirit. In the opera, the refrain “It is written” meaningfully echoes throughout Isabelle’s journey, as a sort of calling, evoking the Islamic tenet of qadar (acceptance of the will of God).
Missy’s music is beautiful and melodic, often haunting with a driving pulse. She infuses classical structures with an electric edge, layering electronic and recorded sounds with the live voices, acoustic instruments and electric guitar. This electric/acoustic duality sounds strikingly fresh and reminded me of paintings by Franny Mendes Levitin. Franny’s work fuses digital and analog imagery, pixilating and layering classical themes in a way that mimics the virtual nomadic exploration of the internet. We evoke Isabelle’s fluid shifting inner and outside worlds with projections of Franny’s paintings layered with evocative manipulated found footage. The classical/contemporary duality of the score will also be reflected in Janice Pytel’s costuming of our cast. Isabelle’s genderfluid sensibility straddles the Eastern/Western cultural divide, male privilege and female vulnerability, libertine sensuality and Islamic spirituality. We experience her as remarkably contemporary, despite the constraints of her time.
Everyone onstage portrays Isabelle Eberhardt. Kia Smith and I have choreographed the dancers and singers to express Isabelle’s turbulent emotional life throughout the opera and connect us to her spiritual path. Isabelle, devastated by the losses of her sibling and parents, carries aspects of her family as she matures, as we all do, and these facets provide her strength and sometimes frailty throughout her brief but incandescent life. At a time when most women worldwide were confined to home and hearth, Isabelle Eberhardt’s unquiet soul set forth on a quest for independence and self-actualization. Throughout her stormy “lives” and “deaths” Isabelle wrote her own life story, and the world was transformed by her “footprints in the sand.”
Chicago Fringe Opera is immensely grateful for our donors who support our mission of presenting innovative vocal works with an emphasis in the new and contemporary styles, engaging with the Chicago community through intimate and immersive performance experiences, and fostering and empowering local artists.